1954 First Night
William Wood 1954-62 Cornwallis
Lights out was at 8.30 after which no talking was allowed. Anyone found out of bed before the rising bell next morning would receive the cane. For most of us in the junior dormitory it was our first night in a boarding school. We were excited but apprehensive. No one admitted to being homesick.

The rising bell was rung at 6.50 and the rush to get ready began. We had a frightening gauntlet to run from our dorm in the old part of the house to the basement of the main block to use the lavatories and the wash basins. It meant crossing the senior landing where big boys who seemed like men to us, stripped, washed and shaved. Spotting a much needed urinal I made a bee-line for it but was pushed away in disgust.

“New bugs go downstairs,” I was informed.

The next landing down was more daunting still because the middle dorm was tenanted by boys not yet grown-up enough to have abandoned bullying, such as, for example, the casual debagging of small boys scurrying through in their new pyjamas like frightened mice. With luck the pyjamas were thrown after the victim down the stone stairs.

Once in the basement we were at last able to relieve our bladders and then to search for a free wash basin and a red or green slab of Lifebuoy soap. The water was cold and there were no working showers, hot or cold. Once a week in the evenings, however, during the two hours set aside for prep, each boy was allotted a twenty minute bath in hot water.

The mornings were very rushed but that first morning more than ever so. We had to find our way back to our dormitory over the hostile landings and along labyrinthine corridors. Then we had to get dressed. No simple matter. Our shirts, which we wore for a week, had detachable collars which were changed on Wednesdays. When new these collars were very stiff and most of us were unpractised in tying our ties within this awkward material held in place by a back stud and a front stud. It would invariable fly off from one or the other just as we secured the tie’s knot. That first day we helped one another and managed to look presentable if slightly throttled.

At 7.30, just to spread panic, a warning bell rang and at 7.40 the bell that signalled our trek into town to Big School where we ate breakfast. Anyone remaining in the house after this bell was punished.

After breakfast we returned to make our beds. A prefect inspected our work to ensure we had made the correct hospital corners. This left us about twenty minutes to gather our homework, books and belongings and, time permitting, to spend a while in the common room where the daily newspapers were spread out on the snooker tables. As soon as the next bell rang we streamed back to Big School where we waited in the lobby with boys from other houses until the school bell pealed out, calling us to our places.

Once the whole school was quiet and settled the bell was tolled a second time. The headmaster in gown and mortar board strode in from the back of the hall. We all rose. He marched up on to the stage and announced the hymn and a boy gamely struck a few chords on the piano to set us off. If we did not sing enthusiastically enough we were told to repeat it. Then a prefect read a lesson from the Bible, the Lord’s Prayer was intoned and finally the headmaster got down to more serious business: the sporting fixtures and achievements.

After assembly, or morning prayers as it was called, school proper began in the classrooms. We quickly got used to this rushed routine but I was in for one more shock. The bells, from the rising bell onwards, were rung by the boys. There was a bell-ringing roster and I found my own name down on it for only one week hence. The penalties for ringing the bell even a few seconds late were too dire to mention. It was therefore common for the duty bell ringer to spend a sleepless night in nervous anticipation. One boy, risking a beating, actually got out of bed and curled up to sleep beneath the bell rope.

Fortunately it would be several years before we had to face the whole school and read the lesson and then only if we became prefects. Before that we had the humiliation of fagging for those very prefects to experience.
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